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A tale of two epidemics — and friendship; Jonathan Jackson teams with Aspenite to add diversity to corporate America

  • 8 min to read

COVID-19 again dominates headlines in the wake of upticks across the country in the weeks after economic restrictions have loosened, including here in Pitkin County. But last Sunday, as Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the Aspen downtown core wound down with an announcement that this weekend’s actions would likely be virtual, Jonathan Jackson reflected on another disease that’s affected the nation throughout his lifetime.

Jonathan Jackson serves as a national spokesman for the Rainbow PUSH Coalition — established by his father, Rev. Jesse Jackson — in 1971 and calls Chicago home. But last Sunday, at the invitation of his longtime friend and former classmate Scott Freidheim, he visited Aspen.

“We can call racism — as Albert Einstein described it — as a disease,” Jackson said. “Capture it, quarantine it, track it, trace it and move it on.”

In many ways, COVID-19 only highlighted the underlying, persistent discrepancies that have existed throughout the fibers of the American legacy, he noted.

“COVID is hitting people that are called essential workers — people that cannot socially distance, that are low-wage income earners, that cannot afford health care,” he said. “The pandemic is still going on, and the nation has an epidemic with racism that has to be rooted out. And the way we can root it out is structurally.”

And while there’s been much talk to that effect by many parties over many decades, both Jackson and Freidheim — himself a veteran of the Wall Street C-suite and now a managing partner of the investment firm of the same name, Freidheim Capital — have focused their recent efforts on identifying actionable items that corporate leaders can utilize to finally realize a long sought-after cultural shift.

“We know where there are symptoms of these diseases within corporations, from the hiring on the front end all the way to the board,” Jackson said. “And on how they spend money and where they spend money: Who are their suppliers? How have they extended credit to those African American entrepreneurs? That’s a transformative process and it’s an undertaking that the CEO has to be involved in, or it simply does not work.”

Jackson often refers to the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, commonly known as the Kerner Commission, when discussing relevant racial issues still impacting national dialogue in 2020, even amid a pandemic that shuttered the economy with stay-at-home orders and business closures. Then President Lyndon B. Johnson commissioned the researchers to offer insights as to why the riots of 1967 occurred.

“They were to answer three questions: what happened, why did it happen, what can be done to prevent it from happening again?” Jackson explained. “So they studied all these racial issues on black and white economics and opportunity. How do you bring a group along that has been culturally and by government disadvantaged? How do we close the gap on the race issues, the legacy issues that the United States has had? I would want to make sure we don’t use diversity as a diversion.”

In its findings, the panel famously warned of a country “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

Within days of the report being published, both CBS and NBC aired documentaries exploring the relationship between race and poverty, according to a 2018 Smithsonian Magazine article.

That relationship continues to fester today, Jackson noted.

“The racism is measurable; it’s structural,” he said. “African American families on average have $17,000 of wealth. White families on average have $170,000 of wealth. That’s over a history — a legacy — of mortgages, lending being overcharged, being denied credit, redlining. And that has been an unbroken continuity.”

In many ways, the federal response to COVID-19 has added some insult to injury to Black activist communities. When Jackson talked about the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security — or CARES — Act, tears sprang to his eyes.

“We said we didn’t have any money and things ‘we couldn’t fund’ on bringing up the African American community and closing these gaps. In two weeks — when white America said they were unemployed, the nation found $2 trillion,” he said. “Because they said white people were going to be unemployed. The federal government gave them $2 trillion.”

But the deeper and — recently, uniquely American — epidemic of racism had been ravaging the ­country for centuries. As Jackson sees it, the Kerner Commission created a baseline for tackling it.

“You’re going to see we’re going to be dusting off an old playbook. We don’t need to study the Black community anymore. We’re the most studied group of people on earth. We don’t need another study. Talk to the practitioners, and let’s do it.

“Our government has directed at emerging markets and countries abroad what they’ve never looked to do internally, [such as] the Overseas Private Investment Corporation,” he continued. “Give concessionary loans, long term, in neighborhoods, following the CDC protocol, following the epidemiologists, which neighborhoods have been hardest hit economically. Which ­neighborhoods are furthest away from the American Dream?”

Going beyond the ‘corporate checkbox’

Polls indicated that, almost immediately after the Kerner Commission had been published identifying white racism and not black anger as the root cause of the riots that led to deaths in more than 20 cities across the country, 53% of white Americans condemned that claim, according to the reporting by the Smithsonian Magazine. Conversely, in the same poll, 58% of Black Americans agreed with the findings.

But today’s demonstrations feel different from those of 1967 or the “riots” of 1992 in response to the acquittal of the police officers from their excessive force charges against Rodney King, Jackson offered.

“I think that’s a very loaded term. They’re almost acts of rebellion, if you will. The Founding Fathers talked about insurrection,” he said. “We’ve not been here before. This is just a level of humanity and indecency that was so appalling that young, white America has evolved. And it’s a new generation. Young, white America is in many ways leading this charge, which is so much different — as you saw today on the streets of Aspen!”

Indeed, the numbers reflect that perception of progress. In research published in the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences comparing educational attainment and correlating economic results between 1968 — the year of the Kerner Commission — and 2015, the statistics tell a clear story.

For instance, only about 30% of Black students had earned a high school diploma or equivalent to 55% of their white counterparts. By 2015, almost 85% of Black students had achieved that milestone, with white students’ with a degree or equivalent creeping up to almost 89%.

The numbers are even more staggering when looking at college degrees: a mere 4.3% of Black students could boast completing that level of post-secondary education in 1968; in the same year, 11.1% of white students could make the same claim. By 2015, those statistics had increased to 20.3% and 31.8%, respectively.

But when examining the ratios of Black household median income to white household median income, the statistic has remained virtually flat: Black families had accumulated about 61% of wealth enjoyed by white families in 1968.

By 2015, that number had inched up to 62%.

That’s perhaps the most telling number in a litany of available statistics, both Jackson and Freidheim agreed. And it’s among the reasons Freidheim invited his friend of more than three decades to his home in Aspen to discuss tangible solutions that can capitalize on momentum happening both in the streets and behind closed doors in ­boardrooms and C-suites on both Wall Street and in Silicon Valley.

“Having Blacks on boards, I think, is good progress,” Freidheim said. “I’ve been focused on the lack of Blacks at the management and operating committee level. Those are the people who run these institutions. The CEO is accountable to the board, that’s true. But the management committee, those are the people responsible for however many people are in that organization.”

When he looked it up, Freidheim found that of the 150 operating committee seats at the top 10 banks on Wall Street, only three of them were occupied by Black Americans.

“Then, look at what the title is: head of [human resources], head of diversity,” he added. “It’s better than nothing, but it’s like the corporate checkbox, the letters that say, ‘We reject racism.’ Who doesn’t?”

A real shift starts, most readily, with revamping the recruitment and interviewing process, he continued — and he’s already practiced what he’s preached in that regard, long before nuances such as overt versus unconscious bias became part of corporate vernacular.

For instance, during his time on Wall Street, Freidheim entered into negotiations with the presidents of Princeton University, the Ivy League in New Jersey, and Spelman College, a women’s institution in Atlanta.

“I wanted to create a center for finance and economic development. Frankly, that was a $10 million check, and I view that as philanthropy — that’s nice, sure it helps on the educational front — but that wasn’t what mattered to me,” he recounted. “What mattered to me was, attached to that, we created a mentorship program. Then I stood in front of all the vice presidents of this major Wall Street firm and said, ‘Every one of you is going to get a mentee: a woman from Spelman College. We are going to take 10% of your bonus away from you, and I don’t care if the mentee comes to our firm. All I care about is that she gets placed well.’”

Freidheim’s hope at the time was that the program would serve as a repeatable model that other, competing firms would replicate. It didn’t happen.

“I don’t care about that one specifically; what I care about is that corporate America uses its creativity, innovation and problem solving to have other replicable ideas,” he said. “I’m hoping that today, with this, there will be a proliferation of those — not inconsistent with being the most profitable market leader, but rather the best firm.”

Evolving technology, too, has changed the landscape for what’s possible in terms of corporate recruitment, he emphasized. Gone could be the days of labor-intensive recruitment models of physically sending firm representatives to Ivy League schools to pitch what are often legacy candidates — that is, relatives or friends of those already in high-powered positions. Rather, corporations could maximize available talent lists to create more highly targeted systems and, in turn, cultivating employee networks and mentorship programs to best set those candidates up for success.

And, Jackson added, effective recruiting systems already exist for reaching out to Black communities.

“The same institutions, they know where to find African American talent to play football. The same institutions, they know where to find African American talent to play basketball,” he pointed out. “Where, right there where that basketball player was, there was also a chemist. Right there where that basketball player was, there was a philosopher. Right there, was a computer engineer. And we’re saying it’s time to open the doors for opportunity for all. Don’t just get our young men and women to try to make money off of them; open the doors of opportunity.”

And not every door of opportunity looks the same, especially to traditionally disadvantaged community members. The door to an athletic scholarship may lead to a very different pathway than the one that leads to a managerial career. Jackson knows all too well, as he experienced a sort of informal mentorship firsthand through his friendship with Freidheim, he said through tears.

“There were so many things I didn’t know. And everything Scott’s saying now, he was doing then,” Jackson said after a long pause to compose himself. “He felt comfortable enough with me to say, ‘John, that’s not how the guys dress for this event.’ He was taking the time to show me all the things that they nitpick on that I knew nothing about. He knew the inside game, the inside lane.”

It’s that kind of friendship and vulnerability that will propel real change in the corporate world, they both agreed. Last Monday, the Freidheims — Scott and his wife, Isabelle — invited a group of whom they consider to be insiders and leaders of chief executives to hear Jackson’s perspectives on racial relations and the tangible cultural shifts that are easily implemented that could return major gains.

“The challenge I’m going to be putting forward is on some other colleagues to confront their organizations. They have power, they have influence, and we want to assist them in giving them our insight, our experiences,” Jackson said. “We all have children at stake and things are on the line, and who knows how much time we have left? But Scotty’s been there over the years. He’s taken the walk, and I appreciate him for it.”

From Wall Street to Main Street

Freidheim in particular is focused on helping influence the spheres in which he has, well, influence — Corporate America — but he and Jackson both realize that there are other so-called “pillars” of society that will need to realize similar structural makeovers in order for the country to heal. And, in turn, realize its sharpest edge in a competitive global market, they both repeated.

To that end, Jackson introduced himself to local organizer Sajari Simmons during last Sunday’s Black Lives Matter demonstration, and Freidheim invited both Simmons and Janelle Figgins, with whom Simmons co-founded Roaring Fork Show Up, to his home to meet with Jackson Sunday evening.

“Because of the history that they exposed me to, because of the here and now that Jonathan is sort of updating me on … I think it gave us a healthier game plan on how to make the program in this valley that we’re developing the most impactful,” Simmons said Saturday.

Today’s demonstration will be virtual, she continued — not only out of respect for COVID-19 precautions, but also to expand the geographical reach of the movement the organization is building.

“[It] will be our first virtual protest,” she explained. “Just going deeper and further into outside of Roaring Fork and just letting people know what we’ve accomplished. We’re really wishing to share and being open to not having to do things the same way all the time — and finding a comfort in the way that things can change because that means growth.”

Megan Tackett is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at megan@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @MeganTackett10.